a column by
Peter Evans Joaquim Mendes/Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation©2009
Jazz em Agosto, Lisbon’s annual summer festival, is a pleasure compounded of balmy evening weather and the visionary programming of artistic director Rui Neves. Presented by the Gulbenkian Foundation in its park-like setting, the festival is usually rich in themes, whether the music is linked by style, place of origin, pitch or instrument. This year’s event had several interlocking patterns, one highlighting improvisational methodologies from George Lewis’s electro-acoustic octet to a Butch Morris conduction to the sonic minimalism of the French saxophone quartet Propagations. Another group of concerts emphasized the trumpet, with performances by Dave Douglas’s Brass Ecstasy and Bill Dixon with Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra. But one of Neves’ boldest strokes was presenting two concerts by the 27-year-old trumpeter Peter Evans, a solo set in one of the festival’s smaller auditoriums and a performance by Evans’ quartet in the Gulbenkian’s outdoor amphitheatre.
Evans, simply put, is a spectacular talent, be it in a duet with Nate Wooley that rarely reveals that it’s two people playing trumpets, his quartet (whose eponymous debut on Firehouse 12 label was co-produced by Taylor Ho Bynum, with a shout-out to Douglas), or, more conspicuously, with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Led by bassist/composer Moppa Elliott, MOPDTK is among the most celebrated younger bands in jazz, whose witty and brilliant melange of styles is summed up (accurately) in their myspace credo as “We like to play all the jazz all the time all at once as fast as possible.” If the band’s strongest stylistic markers come from the unlikely combination of Ornette Coleman and Art Blakey, the ultimate results sound more like the Coleman band with the trumpet chair occupied by Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard.
In a very different range of the tradition, Evans has developed strong ties to free improvisation, apparent on a fine trio CD with cellist Okkyung Lee and pianist Steve Beresford called Check for Monsters (Emanem). He’s also forged a bond with Evan Parker. Parker has released two albums of Evans’ solo music on his psi label, More Is More, recorded in 2005 and the recent two-CD set Nature/Culture. They may be the most startling of all solo trumpet CDs in this field. Evans is a master of circular breathing and he’s able to leap registers with a facility usually reserved for saxophonists. A master of multiphonics, he can either build simultaneous lines or subtle combinations of long tones and distinct timbres, sometimes in the center of the trumpet tradition, sometimes not sounding like a trumpet at all. He sometimes plays two trumpets at once, fingering and blowing a tiny piccolo trumpet while manipulating the valves and air currents of a regular b-flat instrument that he’s micing closely. He also uses a volume pedal for sudden rushes to the feedback threshold. Along with the dense multiphonics, Evans’ creative energy even spills out into the drawings that cover More Is More, organic sketches of oneiric trumpets with multiple sets of valves and bells.
Evans’ collaboration with the Evan-cular Parker has extended to playing in the saxophonist’s principal ensembles. Evans turns up in the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble for The Moment’s Energy (ECM) and recently he’s been performing and recording with the Parker/Guy/Lytton trio. The CDs haven’t quite caught up with Evans yet, but there’s a fine quartet performance on-line at this year’s Freedom of the City Festival with Evans demonstrating great subtlety with Parker, guitarist John Russell and bassist John Edwards (www.freedomofthecity.org). A youtube offering has the same musicians playing with Weasel Walter in place of John Russell (yes, it is a stretch) and Evans is as adept at energy music as he is at subtly-nuanced continuous pitches. Evans’ myspace page is also an excellent gateway to his work, including a trove of recent material that hasn’t made it to CD, including solos and duets and a beautiful quartet piece called “All” that references “All the Things You Are” (myspace.com/peterevanstrumpet).
When we first met, I remarked that his solo playing sounded like a combination of Dizzy Gillespie and John Butcher, and he was careful to check that I meant that in a good way. I did, for as much as that sounds like a stunt, Evans combines the dramatic fire of old jazz with the resonating strangeness and elusive techniques of the best current free improvisation. When I asked Evan Parker recently about the trumpeter’s talent, he remarked “Peter Evans has combined an utterly remarkable instrumental control with a total awareness across the spectrum of new musics and the doors have opened...” And that, somehow, says it all. The trumpet’s problematic history in recent jazz has often hinged around its inflexibility of sound and articulation in relationship to reed instruments. The result has often been dogmatically studied players or players who find an original voice by shying away from the trumpet’s sheer brassiness and its richest tradition. You can almost distinguish between trumpeters and musicians who play trumpets. Only a few contemporary musicians have managed to fuse trumpet identity with musicality and genuine contemporary invention—Wooley and Bynum for two and perhaps most notably Axel Dörner. Peter Evans seems to have pushed the synthesis a bit further.
Playing with free improvisers or the provo-hard-free bop of MOPDTK , Evans is the consummate musical partner, developing his own identity within the specific musical situation. It’s on his own, though, whether as soloist or bandleader that you get the full complexity of his music. His liner note to that first quartet CD clearly articulates a fresh methodology: “[This quartet’s] music is the result of my attempts to create music that is self-consciously ‘jazz,’ without being quaint or ironic about it. The compositions here are almost entirely made up of harmonic material lifted directly from standards, but with many layers of melody and noise piled on top. My goal is that the familiar elements are constantly coming in and out of focus, creating loaded, pressurized music. ...We are forcing our kinetic playing styles THROUGH the (usually very difficult) notation rather than seeking a comfortable relationship with it.... These standards, then are open planes of interaction, where traditional chord structures, white noise, bebop licks, tape hiss, and practice exercises are set in wild motion against one another.”
Since the CD was recorded in 2007, the quartet has changed slightly. Bassist Tom Blancarte and drummer Kevin Shea remain; guitarist Brandon Seabrook appeared on the recording while Colombian pianist Ricardo Gallo played the Lisbon concert. Either way, it’s a startling band, a young jazz group with an original way of putting material together, so that you’re always listening in multiple ways, not just to multiple things, constant collisions occurring as literally different conceptions of musical space force themselves into the same time, with no single structural principle (or its absence) asserting hegemony. Evans’ music can be frantic, edgy and deliberately so. Part of its fundamental truth is its absorption in ideas of tension. A tune called “Bodies and Souls” on the Firehouse 12 CD transforms anything you might make of the original ballad title and its unity of commitment. It’s now assorted and disassembled units, scattered around a horror-movie landscape. As you listen to the quartet, you know that Evans is more than just a brilliant trumpet player, though he’s certainly that. He also possesses an originality of conception that transcends the instrument that he seems to play so effortlessly. While Gallo and Blancarte seem to build layers of divergently formed textures, Evans and Shea—the most dynamic members of the band—explode in multiple directions at once, the drummer managing somehow to play hard-bop time while maintaining a randomizing rattlework of sound.
There’s an ever-growing interest in the processes of jazz education, its divergent streams contributing to some of the most creative and some of the most doctrinaire jazz that’s being played. Evans is close enough to his own school experiences to weigh the parts, still assessing them, sorting out what seems to have mattered most. He talks with the same kind of fluency that he has on trumpet, often punctuating his responses with laughter, the same way he’ll suddenly lean on a volume pedal in solo performance, pushing his trumpet into electronic distortion. It’s that attachment to surprise that keeps his music interesting.
He speaks especially fondly of children’s programs at the New England Conservatory as a key part in his musical development. “When my family moved to Massachusetts, I had already been playing trumpet for a few years. My older sister played violin, and I guess they must have thought the Saturday program at NEC was good since it didn't interfere with school. As I got more and more serious about music, my parents were (very thankfully) encouraging and I ended up attending the Saturday courses until I graduated high school. So, we're talking 1993 or ’94 until 1999. I played in youth orchestra, took some theory classes, and studied some piano, composition, ear training. But the people were the main thing.”
For Evans, those supplementary programs seem to be taking on a general importance. “I was talking to a great young pianist in New York, Carlos Homs, from New Jersey. He was describing a program he attended in high school in Newark that had many good musicians from different areas of New Jersey, like Tyshawn Sorey. He was describing this situation and it exactly resembles my experience at NEC: being surrounded by other kids who are also really into music and creativity has a big effect at that age, especially with the right guidance.”
It was while taking those NEC classes that Evans met a key influence on his development: “There is a guy there named David Zoffer, when he started teaching he must have been 23 or so. He was a grad student at NEC who was left in charge of the Saturday jazz courses. He was a singularly important teacher and influence for me during high school since he was both extremely knowledgeable about many areas of music, but also had the curiosity and humility of a student.” It was Zoffer who exposed Evans to some of the range of music that informs his current work: “We looked at all types of stuff, like Charlie Parker solos, Webern and 12-tone music, Zappa, the ’60s Miles Quintet music, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, blues, Bach fugues, all kinds of stuff. He basically built the jazz program for high school kids up from a fringe element in the program when I started to what I understand now is a pretty major operation...”
Part of Zoffer’s importance for Evans was that he didn’t care about the trumpet per se. “So, I took piano lessons from him, and although I played a mediocre jazz piano the real point of the lessons was to just study music in general, with a focus on jazz and improvisation. So it was really helpful to learn stuff about theory, structure, different improvisational models from someone who wasn't a trumpet player and frankly didn't care about the trumpet's technical limitations.”
Zoffer wouldn’t take the trumpet as an excuse, and that’s an essential ingredient in Evans’ current playing: “I played a concert at my high school when I was pretty young and just figuring out some licks and how to play over changes. Dave was at the concert, and I just played and played, a really long solo on a blues or something and I remember being proud of myself after the show just for playing so much!”
Evans laughs recalling Zoffer’s reaction: “So the next day I actually had the nerve to ask Dave what he thought, thinking he would approve, when instead he basically said that although it's great from an instrumental standpoint to be able to play lots of stuff, emulate people, get around the horn, etcetera, that's not really making music and that my playing just sounded like a bunch of regurgitated bebop trumpet licks.” (more laughter) “I don't think he would have told me this if he didn't think I could handle the criticism, it sounds more harsh than it was at the time. It definitely hurt, but who wants a teacher telling them how great they are?
“It was great to have this kind of advice at such an early point: that all the chops in the world don't mean anything if there aren't real ideas and emotions behind them. “
At the same time Evans was studying trumpet with Darren Barrett and getting more challenges: “I just went to his house in Boston once a week. He was important from a more ‘back to basics’ standpoint of learning vocabulary, checking out different players, etcetera. He would assign me ridiculous things that he knew I wouldn't be able to finish in a week, like learning every single trumpet solo off a particular record, but I would try and then we'd sit down and try stuff out and talk about it.
“So any sense that you have that I developed fast has a lot to do with my parents for supporting my interest, and these teachers I had in high school. They were arguably more important and influential for me than experiences I had at the Oberlin Conservatory simply because I may have been more receptive. In college I didn't want anyone to tell me what to do! (laughter) This resulted in some funny, uncomfortable times, especially in the classical trumpet lessons. Roy Poper was my classical teacher for the last couple years of Oberlin, and he was cool with the stuff I wanted to do although he wished I would play more concertos.”
It was at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, where Evans was in the classical stream, that he became more conscious of improvised music: “At Oberlin the environment was great for self-education. The school has an artist-colony type atmosphere and in the conservatory, the faculty kind of just let you do whatever you wanted as long as you can play. So I had a lot of fun. The library was huge and a lot of important listening was done there. That's where I first heard (very small amounts) of improvised music and more adventurous jazz stuff, although a lot of those CDs we had to ask the library to get. They showed up eventually, though. I also met some people with fantastic record collections, so I was able to hear Zorn's stuff, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, lots of modern classical stuff. A lot of us were really into [Giacinto] Scelsi. I was a Coltrane freak for a long time and undertook ridiculous transcription projects which I usually never finished. There’s a great recording of Coltrane playing ‘Autumn Leaves’ where he seems to play fairly standard bebop lines but with certain notes popping out an octave higher, giving the impression of counterpoint. So that was nice to see a connection between that stuff and the little bit of Evan's solo stuff I had heard.
“I remember sitting there one day listening to Sankt Gerold Variations [by the trio of Paul Bley, Evan Parker and Barre Phillips on ECM] and a friend came over and asked to listen for a bit. She listened for a minute or two and said ‘You should be doing this stuff!’ And that was around the time I started taking free improvising more seriously. The faculty at Oberlin had some really interesting characters. Tim Weiss is a really young guy that conducts the contemporary music ensemble. I played in that and we played some ridiculous music, very difficult and incredibly fun. James Dillon, Jonathan Harvey, Birtwistle, Ligeti. Also there were lots of good student composers and all of this together gave me a really positive experience in chamber music which I try to retain in my memory if I'm surrounded by more grumpy classical types form time to time. On the Jazz faculty there was Billy Hart, Gary Bartz, a great drummer from Cleveland named Greg Bandy...the head of the program is Wendell Logan, a composer. I didn't really spend a ton of time studying with those guys since I was ‘officially’ in the classical program but they all had different ways of teaching that mostly had to do with students decoding what they are saying and thinking about it over a long period of time--not the ‘here is the information’ approach, which I think is a quick fix but ultimately not very effective.
“So, all of these people, plus my peers, were very influential, either at the time or later, when I’ve had some years to reflect on stuff they did and said.”
Despite the variety of sources that Evans has explored, he’s more concerned about achieving continuity in his work: “I really don't think of my playing as a cut-and-paste job of different styles, although maybe it can sound like that sometimes. I try to keep my playing/improvising approach as natural--to me, anyways--as possible. I am interested in how certain ways of combining methods and styles which may have once seemed ‘ironic’ or very forced, are becoming for more and more players the modus operandi. I like ideas of cinematic perspective applied to material, zooming in on or away from material and showing its identity in an unexpected light.
“Playing a single note on the trumpet with a Harmon mute has been done to death and made an instantly recognizable sound by Miles Davis, but what if you sustain that note for 10 minutes? Doesn't sound so jazzy anymore! (laughter) Is it all of a sudden an extended technique? So I am interested in context as much as content. I don't use the phrase ‘extended technique’ because I think it's misleading, and very biased--it makes it seem as if certain techniques of using a technology are ‘natural’ and others not. Obviously with the awareness people have of music globally these days, it's pretty clear that what seems natural to a gypsy trumpet player in Serbia doesn't seem so easy to the trumpet player of a western symphony orchestra. This brings up lots of questions concerning the nature of technology and whether or not there is such a thing as ‘pure’ technology, or instead that all technology has cultural information embedded in it as a matter of fact.
“In terms of blending materials, as long as it's coming from an honest place, the most unlikely things can work. Eclecticism isn't anything new, either. I mean, Herbie Hancock – one of my heroes for many reasons – must be the only musician on the planet to have played with both Eric Dolphy and Christina Aguilera! The question is: how do you do both at the same time? In MOPDTK we try to pose these questions, and only sometimes answer them.”
Evans’ relationship with MOPDTK leader Moppa Elliott dates back to 1999 when they first met at Oberlin: “We played a lot together then and shared/developed similar ideas about music, although I think Moppa wound up more of a real conceptualist than I did and I'm referring to MOPDTK here-- Moppa is definitely ‘on a mission!’ (laughter). Moppa moved to New York City a year ahead of me and met [saxophonist] Jon [Irabagon] then. When I moved to town in fall 2003, Moppa decided to start a group. Mary Halvorson gave me a CD-R of her duo with Kevin Shea called People, sort of a free/math-rock/sci-fi band. The drumming totally knocked me out, and I told Moppa about him. We've been playing as a quartet ever since. So this fall it’s our sixth anniversary. I'm really thankful to be in the band because it's one of those rare situations where we are so comfortable with each other's voices and ideas, that anybody is really free to do whatever they want and they know that the other members are listening --even if they choose to ignore that person (more laughter). On top of that, the music is fun in a quite traditional way and it's nice to play music for people for a change that conveys that quality, yet is still super challenging to play both physically and mentally.”
It was Evans’ constant search for new input that eventually led to his meeting Evan Parker: “In 2003 I went to a trumpet seminar run by Ed Carroll in Lake Placid, New York. My main reason for going was that Markus Stockhausen was going to be there, doing workshops about improvisation. I ended up not only meeting Markus, but also Mark Gould, the former principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera and in the ’70s a jazz/free jazz trumpet player. Mark became an informal mentor to me in my first years in New York.
“Markus and I got along great, did some playing together, and he asked me about influences. This was when I first starting really trying to get away from using any kind of traditional trumpet technique in the course of a piece. I mentioned Evan, and he said that they had done some playing together. Later that year—2003 or 4 – Evan came to New York and Markus had put in a kind word for me. So I approached Evan after the set and he invited me to the place he was staying the next day. I brought some (not very good) solo music, which he actually listened to all of, right there with me in the room, gave some comments, asked me some questions...the whole thing was pretty funny looking back on it. We stayed in touch and when I recorded my first solo disc, I sent him a copy, simply because I thought he would enjoy it. I couldn't find anyone to put it out, and told him and he said that he could release it. And ever since we have developed what Evan jokingly likes to call an ‘avuncular’ relationship. He has really turned into some kind of mentor/friend and from time to time, agent.
“I remember when Steve Lacy died, I read a series of remembrances in a newspaper or online journal and Evan wrote one – something about how great a reward it is to look up to someone as an influence, have something develop over time, until one day you turn around and realize you have a friendship with this person. I can equally direct that towards Evan himself.”
Recently Evans has been playing more frequently in improvising groups, with both ad hoc assemblies and with Parker’s principal ensembles: “Playing with Parker/Guy/Lytton has been pretty great. I've done it twice. The first time I played with them was in 2007 at the Vortex and I didn't feel I did so well: it was hard to hear myself in the mix as something other than ‘extra,’ and not actually an integral part of the sound-world. They have this very specific thing they do sometimes where they lock together as one very fast moving unit, and once that happens I think it's all over for me! (laughter) So it became more a question of really accepting my role as an equal in the group --not easy--and trying to work from the inside out, rather than outside in. We just did a recording and concert for Clean Feed and I felt much better about it. It was a lot of fun and very inspiring to play with improvisers on that level. They treat me as an equal which is difficult for me to wrap my head around, but it’s essential if we're going to make music together.”
Evans’ single playing experience with Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble was at the Huddersfield Festival concert that became the recent The Moment's Energy, and already it’s suggesting new directions for his jazz-oriented projects: “The challenge there was really accepting the role of an orchestral musician--meaning that it's simply not possible to hear or have an overarching effect on the total sound mass, the way it might be in a small group. I learned a lot about playing with digital processing and since then I have done it quite a bit, a few sessions with Joel Ryan and some great concerts with some guys in New York: Sam Pluta, who is a student of George Lewis at Columbia, and Nathan Davis, a composer, percussionist, and computer wizard. I'm now even toying with the idea of adding digital processing to a more jazz-group context with combinations of the live processing, charts, improvisation, melodies, and chord changes... we'll see what happens.”